DETROIT — The push to offer autonomous driving, innovate new mobility options and differentiate models with new technology has upended many parts of the automotive industry.
In doing so, industry experts say it’s changing multiple segments of the vehicle, including the interior, where companies are competing to manufacture the latest must-have technology by focusing on the passenger experience, whether that’s through seating, electronics or safety enhancements.
One example of this innovation comes from Detroit-based Adient Inc. (NYSE: ADNT), a global automotive seating manufacturing with plants in Holland and Battle Creek.
The company, which spun off from Milwaukee, Wis.-based Johnson Controls Inc. in 2016, is putting its focus on the interior of the car, said Eric Mitchell, Adient’s executive vice president, adding that it’s where the industry is going.
“I think the whole imaging and design of what the interior is, is going to be the future,” Mitchell told MiBiz. “We have a vested interest in this, but even if you were to step back and see and think logically how cars are going to sell in the future, it’s going to be less about how a car drives, and when it goes autonomous, it’s going to be more about how does it ride and what can you do in the car and what do you see.”
Mitchell said that the automotive industry is going to have to adapt to market-specific demands, where “different countries may be more advanced going into autonomous than other countries.”
“We also think there is going to be a portion of the market that is going to be like autonomous but it’s not going to be ride-sharing,” Mitchell said. “They are still going to be consumer-owned, and they are going to want more consumer-owned, and they are going to want more creature comforts within the vehicles.”
A report from PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP (PwC) echoed a similar sentiment, noting the interior is “potential real estate for ambitious enhancements of safety or entertainment.”
The PwC report describes how new vehicle technologies such as 3-D laminated glass, haptic sensors and augmented reality heads-up displays have all entered “the vocabulary of traditional suppliers.”
Ultimately, electronics in the vehicle could make up “20 percent of a car’s value in the next two years, up from only about 13 percent in 2015,” according to PwC data.
Additionally, PwC reported that interior seats may be reoriented to face each other, playing into the market Adient is targeting.
“The idea is, in the future, we would like to offer services through our seat,” said Richard Chung, vice president of global innovation and design for Adient. “Meaning, you could have a telehealth doctor conference on board (your car). So many people are busy and they don’t have time to see the doctor on a regular basis, so that’s one aspect of a service we can bring into the car environment with our seat.”
In the future, Chung said he expects people to “actually sleep” in their cars, so it’s up to Adient to make the ride “as comfortable as possible.”
Adient showed its vision of the future with the AI18 concept vehicle, in which the seating features massage and biometry measurements that read heart rate and breathing, for example. The seats sit on rails that allow them to reconfigure the interior into a lounge setting so two people can face each other to talk.
With the focus on an “urban setting,” the concept also features a family mode that adds an additional two seats in back.
Mitchell said some of Adient’s seating also comes equipped with ottoman-functionality, where “you’re going to get more of that (Human Machine Interface), more entertainment opportunities, which is going to drive up the value … in the interiors.”
Eventually, Chung said Adient’s seat will be able to interact with a passenger’s body, adjusting its settings to have even distribution of weight “so you’re always comfortable.”
“We are thinking of the future, whether you want to learn or relax or have meetings (in the car), Chung said.
NEW OPPORTUNITIES, RISKS
Paul Eichenberg, an automotive strategy consultant with 25 years of experience, said multiple systems are coming together inside vehicles “like a parking assist with collision mitigation braking.”
He said that as technology moves “toward automated driving” or electrification, entirely new systems are becoming more commonplace in vehicles. He cited the Audi A8 sedan and vehicles from Tesla as already offering automated driving modes.
“These are the first level-three type of systems, which for me is sort of the technology of getting on the highway and moving toward automated driving,” said Eichenberg, founder of the Novi, Mich.-based Paul Eichenberg Strategic Consulting.
Additionally, more automakers are electrifying various components in their vehicles, even outside of electric vehicles and hybrids. That’s good news for tech providers like the South Korea-based conglomerate LG Corp., which operates an ever-expanding lithium-ion battery plant in Holland.
According to Eichenberg’s estimates, LG manufactures 56 percent of the content on the Chevrolet Bolt, including the battery, electric motor, power electronics, and various semiconductors.
“That’s more content that’s coming from any other area of the vehicle. And that’s coming at the expense of their traditional Tier-1 suppliers,” he said.
This shift toward electrification is “far more disruptive than the advent of electric vehicles,” he said.
When moving from an internal combustion engine to an electric motor, automotive suppliers of machining and transmission components have the potential to be “devastated,” Eichenberg said.
“In our industry, we’re already starting to see the impact of this shift,” he said.
INVESTING IN TECH
Meanwhile, other traditional West Michigan automotive suppliers also have been investing heavily in new technologies.
That includes DENSO International America Inc., which in December acquired InfiniteKey Inc., a Holland-based tech startup that developed phone-as-a-key (PaaK) technology that eliminates the need for physical automotive keys.
“If you could imagine how a passive key works for a push-button-start vehicle … it works much in the same fashion, only you get rid of that key fob and all you have to do is carry your phone in your pocket, purse or bag,” former InfiniteKey CEO Kevin Virta told MiBiz at the time.
Unlike with existing technology “where you have to launch the app and press an unlock button” before starting the car, InfiniteKey’s system works passively with via Bluetooth “while you have the phone in your pocket or while you are even doing something else on your phone, having a conversation or texting,” Virta said.
Additionally, Zeeland-based Gentex Corp., a Tier-1 automotive supplier of auto-dimming mirrors and other vehicle technology, has also been betting big on next-generation ideas.
Recently, the company agreed to a long-term partnership with Swedish tech firm Fingerprints, which allows Gentex to deploy iris-scanning technology in vehicles for driver authentication, vehicle security and cabin personalization, to name a few uses.
The company said the biometric technology could also be aimed at car-sharing platforms to verify the identity of the driver.
Gentex also took an equity stake in Boulder, Colo.-based tech firm Yonomi as part of a $5 million Series A round. The move will allow Gentex to launch HomeLink Connect, a new software enabling drivers to control home automation devices from their vehicles. The center console- or mirror-mounted system allows drivers to adjust thermostats, home lighting, door locks and the disarming of security systems.
“Our combined capabilities will help us provide automakers with a versatile, comprehensive and robust home automation platform that opens HomeLink to new markets and users by providing an ever-expanding number of use cases,” CEO Steve Downing said in a statement.